Reading Augustine’s CONFESSIONS

At the beginning of this year I made a list of New Year’s Reading Resolutions (see January 2 blog): “Twelve books, one per month, that I’ve never read, that I really do want to read, expect to enjoy reading and anticipate benefitting from reading.” My intention is that I’ll post a blog at the end of each month (or close to it) with some thoughts and observations about or from the books. (You, of course, are more than welcome to add your own knowledge to what little I have.) During the month of May my reading was The C0nfessions of Saint Augustine, widely seen as the first Western autobiography ever written.

When I first began to read the Confessions I started with a translation by The Reverend Edward Bouverie Pusey. He lived from 1800 – 1882. In the first paragraph there were 17 “Thee”s, 7 “Thy”s, 7 “Thou”s, 2 “art”s and an smattering of “resisteth”, “knoweth”, “awaketh” and “hath”. This was not going to cutteth it. So I got hold of the Barnes and Noble Classics edition for $6.95: my recommendation.

Aurelius Augustinus was born on November 13, 354. He grew up to become the Bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa and is considered by many to be the most seminal Christian thinker after the Apostle Paul.

Those who have at least a passing awareness of his Confessions, are probably familiar with his prayer, “Lord make me chaste – but not yet” and his spot on assertion, “You have made us for yourself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you.”

A book with profound insights, its stability is like that (as I suspect all good autobiographies are) of a three legged stool:

1.       He knows where he is:

“The house of my soul is too narrow for you to come in to me; let it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins; restore it. There is much about it that must offend your eyes; I confess and know it. But who will cleanse it? Or, to whom shall I cry but to you? Cleanse me from my secret faults, lord, and keep back your servant from strange sins. [Psalm 19:12, 13] I believe, and the therefore I speak. But you know, lord. Have I not confessed my transgressions to you, my god; and have you not put away the iniquity in my heart? [Psalm 32:5] I do not contend in judgment with you, who are truth itself; and I would not deceive myself, lest my iniquity lie even to itself. I do not, therefore, contend in judgment with you, for ‘if you, lord, should mark iniquities, lord, who shall stand. [Psalm 130:3]” [Confessions 1.5]

2.      He knows where he’s come from:

“I wish now to review in memory my past wickedness and the carnal corruptions of my soul – not because I still love them, but that I may love you, my god. For love of your love I do this, recalling in the bitterness of self-examination my wicked ways, that you may grow sweet to me, you sweetness without deception! Thus you may gather me up out of those fragments in which I was torn to pieces, while turned away from you who are one, and lost myself among the many. For as I became a youth, I longed to be satisfied with worldly things, and I dared to grow wild in a succession of various and shadowy loves. My form wasted, and I became corrupt in your eyes, yet I was still pleasing to my own eyes – and eager to please the eyes of men. [Confessions 2.1]

“Theft is punished by your law, lord, and by the law written in men’s hearts, which not even engrained wickedness can erase. For what thief will tolerate another thief stealing from him? Even a rich thief will not tolerate a poor thief who is driven my want. Yet I had a desire to commit robbery, and did so, compelled to it by neither hunger nor poverty, but through a contempt for well-doing and a strong impulse to iniquity. For I pilfered something which I had already in sufficient measure, and of much better quality. I did not desire to enjoy what I stole, but only the theft and the sin itself. There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting for its color or for its flavor. Late one night – having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our habit was – a group of young scoundrels, and i among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, god, such was my heart – which you pitied even in that bottomless pit. See now, let my heart confess to you what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wicked, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error – not that for which I erred, but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in you to destruction in itself., seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.” [Confessions 2.4]

3.      He knows where he’s going:

“Lord god, grant us your peace – for you have given us all things. Grant us the peace of quietness, the peace of the sabbath, the peace without an evening. All of this most beautiful array of things, all so very good, will pass away when all their courses are finished – for in them there is both morning and evening. But the seventh day is without an evening, and it has no setting, for you have sanctified it with an everlasting duration. After all your works of creation, which were very good, you rested on the seventh day, although you had created them all in unbroken rest – and this so that the voice of your book might speak to us with the prior assurance that after our works – and they also are very good because you have given them to us – we may find our rest in you in the sabbath of eternal life. [Confessions 13.35]

During the month of June, I’ll be reading  Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. Join me, if you’d like.


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